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If you aren't worried about education in Michigan, you just flunked the common sense test

Mar 20, 2015

Virtually everyone who doesn’t have a political reason to pretend otherwise would agree that the Detroit public schools are a dreadful failure.

More than three-quarters of its students have fled the district in the last 14 years. Test scores remain appallingly low, and a succession of emergency managers has failed to stabilize the finances. Most children in the district now go to charters, private schools or schools in the suburbs, a clear vote of no confidence by Detroit parents.

Those of us who live elsewhere may think we don’t have to worry about our schools, but we should.

This week, the Pacific Research Institute, which calls itself a non-partisan think tank, released what it said was a ground-breaking new study of schools in Michigan.

They looked at 677 schools in which no more than one-quarter of the students were listed as low-income.

Their study found that in nearly half these schools, more than half the students in at least one grade level failed to meet proficiency on the MEAP and the Michigan Merit Exam.

Performance in math seemed to be a particular concern.

Now this study is unlikely to be taken seriously by much of the education establishment, because the Pacific Research Institute does have an agenda: School choice.

They want to make it easier for all students to flee the public schools, and hope these results will cause our politicians to help them do so, by enacting education savings accounts and tax-credit programs.

Personally, I think this is wrong-headed.

I think the key to our coherence and salvation as a society lies in fixing the public schools.

I think the key to our coherence and salvation as a society lies in fixing the public schools.

I would like to be able to assume that my college students leave high school with a certain common body of knowledge and abilities, and the current education chaos means I can no longer do that.

Many of them really don’t know when the Civil War was or what it was about, something I learned in fourth grade.

But I think we disregard studies like this at our own peril. If my worst enemy tells me that I have a flat tire, it would be stupid of me not to check on that. And education in this state is leaking air fast.

Tom Watkins, who was once state superintendent, often says that the education establishment in this state is too much concerned with politics and adults and not enough focused on kids and education.

That was certainly on display this week in the battle over naming a new state superintendent.

The board eventually selected Brian Whiston, now superintendent of the Dearborn schools but who is better known as a lobbyist for the Oakland County Schools.

Whiston seems to have been few state board members first choice, but they deadlocked. What they seem to have liked about him is that he was a lobbyist and maybe could relate to the Legislature. He has reportedly not, by the way, ever been a full-time teacher.

And as all this was happening, the governor yanked the school reform office away from the state department of ed and put it under management and budget. If you aren’t worried about education in Michigan, I think you just flunked the common sense test.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.